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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Effect
Cottesloe Theatre   Winter 2012-2013

Lucy Prebble writes plays about big subjects, and here she has chosen a half-dozen or more big subjects, which she makes emotionally involving and intellectually stimulating. 

The only problem is that she raises her various topics sequentially, so that just as we're getting immersed in one she seems to lose interest and drags us to another, which she makes equally fascinating until she moves on to another and another. 

For the five to twenty minutes that she spends on each theme you will be completely absorbed, but you'll start to wish she would slow down and let you work out your thoughts and feelings at each stage before moving on. 

We're at a drugs trial, where healthy volunteers are paid to take particular medicines so their effects and side effects can be measured. We meet two volunteers (Billie Piper and Jonjo O'Neill) and two doctors (Anastasia Hille and Tom Goodman-Hill). 

The drug is an anti-depressive, and one of the first things they discover is that in non-depressed subjects it raises brain chemistry and activity to exactly the same euphoric level as falling in love does. But what happens to the subjects? Experiencing this brain activity, will they incorrectly interpret it as evidence that they're in love? Can they trust their emotions, or each other's? Or is it that they are actually falling in love, their natural brain chemistry changes skewing the test? 

Thanks largely to the warm and attractive performances of Piper and O'Neill, these aren't just intellectual puzzles but a potentially heartbreaking human story. And just as we are coming to understand that, playwright Prebble pulls us away to look at the doctors, who have an emotional history that clouds their objectivity. 

She points out that he is employed by the drug company and therefore has a bias toward interpreting their data as positively as possible. And no sooner has that ethical question been raised than Prebble changes it, having Hille's character question the whole premise of pharmaceutical treatment of mental illness. 

Though the assumption that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance is almost universal, there is no solid evidence of that, she says, and they may just be peddling very expensive and addictive placebos. 

And then the focus changes again, as one of the test subject has a severely bad reaction to the drug and the already uncertain relationship of the couple is tested in a new way. And then one of the doctors succumbs to depression and can't get out of bed. And then . . . . 

You can't help feeling that Lucy Prebble had a half-dozen plays to write and, rather than choosing one, she just strung them together. Every one of them is potentially successful, but in this chain every one of them feels frustratingly incomplete. 

That the evening hangs together at all is a credit to the eloquence of Prebble's writing and to the actors and director, who flesh out the characters so that our emotional investment in them carries us from scene to scene.

Billie Piper gives the most rounded and most believable performance I've seen her achieve onstage, and Jonjo O'Neill brings a warm and attractive reality to what could have been a stock figure. Tom Goodman-Hill invests his character with a humanity that keeps him from being just the villain of the piece, while Anastasia Hille carries the burden of a lot of the scientific exposition and ethical issue-raising while also creating a complex and sympathetic character. 

Rupert Goold directs with sensitivity and visual inventiveness that almost manage to paper over all the topic-shifting cracks in the script. 

Come prepared to immerse yourself in one human story and intellectual question after another, only to be pulled away from each before you're fully satisfied, and you'll get several plays' worth of things to think and feel about.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - The Effect - National Theatre 2012 
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